Today is a sad day for me as Tony Benn has just passed away. Benn, whose name became synonymous with radical left-wing views in the UK, was a huge inspiration to a lot of people, including myself. If I can be somewhat autobiographical for a moment, for most of my young life I was a dyed-in-the-wool left-of-center Democrat, molded in imitation of the many Baby Boomers in my life who had flirted with radicalism in the 1960s but then moderated their views and voted Reagan in the 1980s. I blandly espoused support for environmentalism, nebulous “social justice” causes and a kinder/gentler form of capitalism. Somewhere along the way I found these views ill-fitting, but it wasn’t until I began to learn about British politics that I discovered democratic socialism, its tenets and an articulation of my actual sense of how the world actually worked. I wasn’t just dissatisfied with one or two aspects of the status quo; fundamentally, from the norms on down to the structural relations between classes, our society was rotten to its core. Yet another world was possible. And no one spoke more eloquently or seemed more committed to creating that world than Benn.
Benn himself started out as an establishment figure, a scion of nobility and an aspiring technocrat within the Labour Party. He was on the fast track as a government minister in the 1960s, much more mainstream than counterculture (the antagonist in that Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie about pirate radio DJs is actually based on a young Benn). It wasn’t until later that Benn embraced and then championed the uncompromising socialism he would forever be associated with; a Labour Prime Minister once said Benn “immatured with age.” I always found it fascinating that Benn was a late convert to socialism; so many of us, from politicians to decent people, start out with lofty ideas about the world and how it should be, only to succumb to cynicism and disillusionment. We come to accept the notion that people are, at heart, greedy and dishonest people and that life, while unfair, cannot be any other way, so we might as well scratch and scramble for whatever scrabs we can. Benn, however, afforded many privileges in life, decided to give up not just his noble title but any of the comforts that would have come from a quiet, simple life of towing the party line to become a far-left firebrand, putting his principles before personalities and, ultimately, even his party.
For a brief spell in the late 1970s and 1980s, Benn was at the forefront of his party. Financial crises had shown to the world that orthodox economic thinking was flawed, and while Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives turned to Friedrich Hayek and neoliberalism, Benn and other noted socialists like Michael Foot and Eric Heffer returned Labour to its socialist roots. The nationalization of the “commanding heights” industries became a top priority, as did a return to full employment and fair wages. While it cannot be disputed that Labour’s 1983 manifesto was the most radical the party had ever presented, the idea that it was the “longest suicide note in history” (so dubbed by a Labour right-winger) omits the fact that Thatcher and the Tories had seen their poll numbers bolstered by the Falkland Crisis, in which the Iron Lady killed many Argentines over Britain’s claim to a handful of rocks in South America. If there had been no “rally-round-the-flag” effect created by the wave of jingoism and saber-rattling and if Britons had been focused (as they had been) on the “necessary” unemployment fostered by Thatcher’s policies, would the 1983 election have been as close as it was? Perhaps, perhaps not; so it is with counterfactuals. However, what we do know is that the milquetoast, effete leadership of Neil Kinnock that followed the short-lived days of radical, militant Labour did very little to bring down the Thatcher premiership (even when it seemed certain in 1992). Instead, the Labour Party only lurched further to the right, becoming “New Labour” — Thatcher’s proudest achievement. What had started off as the political arm of the British labor movement turned into all-image, no-substance party that hated spending but loved U.S. military adventurism.
Most remembrances you will find out there of Tony Benn express admiration for him not because he was a great man in the opinion of the writer but simply because he held fast to his views even when they were no longer popular. Just beneath the surface of such obituaries is the implicit belief that Benn was, at the end of the day, a misguided old fool who talked funny and only became safe to admire when he was no longer in a position to affect policy. Once he became a backbencher and a “mere” political activist, he was no longer a “dangerous man.” The truth is that Tony Benn was always dangerous to people in power, and just because he did not have a place in Cabinet or a seat in the House of Commons does not mean he was powerless. His power stemmed not from official sanction but his integrity, his character and not least of all his eloquence to express what cynical, jaded people don’t admit openly that they sometimes still think: that maybe this unfair, unjust world isn’t the only possible world we could be living in. Tony Benn may not have realized his dream of a socialist Britain, but by continuing to espouse his beliefs and by refusing to censor those beliefs for the sake of personal advancement, he provided a model for people like me — to not tether our dreams and ambitions to fleeting things beyond our control, like wealth or fame, but to stay true to that which is in our control: namely, to live our lives according to the principles of courage, equality and justice.